The second São Paulo Science and Engineering Fair (SEF), which took place December 6th-8th at the Espaço Catavento in São Paulo, brought together fascinating accounts of the love of science plus 124 public and private school projects that made the final cut from 27 cities in the state of São Paulo—three times more than at the first event, which had to include projects presented in other science fairs just to reach a reasonable number. Perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the fair, aimed at students in elementary and secondary school, has been to attract more students and advisors from public schools in São Paulo to the science fair circuit, an audience traditionally resistant to these initiatives. “We felt the need to focus more on the students and teachers of schools in São Paulo, especially the many public schools that often do not even think about participating in science fairs,” says Roseli de Deus Lopes, a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) Polytecnical School and one of the organizers of the SEF.
The former Science Station Museum director, Lopes is the general coordinator of the Brazilian Science and Engineering Fair (Febrace), which is in its 13th year. It is held annually at USP and has displayed projects from students from more than 900 municipalities over the last 12 years. “Increasing the participation of students from public and private schools in science fairs is key,” says Lopes. “It allows them to see that they can exercise their scientific curiosity, break through the limitations of their environments and broaden their horizons,” she says.
A contingent of 278 students, accompanied by 103 teachers, presented their projects in booths at Espaço Catavento and competed for awards in the categories of engineering, exact and earth sciences, humanities, applied social science, biology, health and agriculture, as well as for grants for undergraduate research from the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq) and for invitations to participate in the 2013 Febrace. The SEF was sponsored by the Polytechnical School, through the Integrated Systems Laboratory, in partnership with the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation, together with the Coordinating Agency for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (Capes), CNPq and the State of São Paulo’s Departments of Culture and Education.
Although trophies, medals and scholarships are an important part of the competition, one of the great benefits of such fairs is the opportunity to bring students from different schools together in the same environment. “This type of interaction is important because students attend the fair to defend their projects and meet their peers from other places and social classes who managed to overcome challenges sometimes even larger than theirs,” says Lopes, who also highlights the importance of having the project ideas come from the students, not the teachers.
“Participating in the fair is a way to encourage creativity, meet people your age who are involved in research and who are interested in discovering and sharing ideas,” said Nayrob Pereira, 16, a junior at the State High School Alberto Torres, in the city of São Paulo, who won first place in the Agricultural, Biological and Health Sciences category, for her research on the uses of the antimicrobial peptides found in the venom of the scorpion Tityus serrulatus. Nayrob’s project was personally motivated. In 2011, during a National Week of Science and Technology activity at the Butantan Institute in São Paulo, she suffered a panic attack when she saw the spiders and other animals. “The teacher showed us the animals and I started crying because I was so afraid,” she says. The teacher was Pedro Ismael da Silva Junior, a researcher at the Butantan Institute Special Applied Toxicology Laboratory, who accompanied the group of students.
The scare embarrassed Nayrob and sparked her interest in the subject. Selected by her school to compete for a CNPq high school scholarship, the girl returned to the dreaded spiders at the Butantan Institute, this time to face them without fear. “Pedro was surprised to see me again,” said Nayrob, explaining that she decided to work on the project in the researcher’s laboratory as a way to face her fear. She soon chose the Tytius serrulatus scorpion and its powerful venom. Along with her advisor, the student noted that in recent years, many antimicrobial peptides have been found in scorpion venom, and some even have antitumor properties. After laboratory work, they identified two fractions with antimicrobial activity. For the student, this research has been decisive in defining her future career, and her interests in the humanities have given way to a new interest in biology.
“At science fairs, you build a network of people who can help you,” explains Walter von Söhsten Xavier Lins, 17, a high school junior at the Colégio Dante Alighieri, São Paulo. He and his schoolmate, Renata Colla Thosi, came in second in the category won by Nayrob, with a study on the use of a plant to accelerate wound healing in diabetics. Walter cultivated a taste for science early on. In 2010, while in ninth grade, he was invited by Sandra Tonidandel, teacher and counselor at his school’s High School Research Program, to undertake a research project. At the time, he wanted to study medicine and work with a disease that was difficult to treat. “I started researching and came upon diabetes, a disease that hinders healing and causes various public health problems,” he says. In addition to the lack of specific drugs for healing skin lesions in diabetic patients, most are expensive and are not suitable for every type of patient. The goal of his project was to study the plant Bauhinia forficata—popularly known as pata de vaca—widely used in Brazil as a natural antidiabetic remedy. “Phytochemical studies have identified a chemical marker called kampferol, found only in the leaves of the plant,” explains Walter in the project.
Walter and Renata’s project was to investigate the possibility of developing a topical preparation based on an extract from the plant and evaluate its effectiveness in healing wounds in diabetic rats. The study depended on the collaboration of universities in São Paulo. At USP, support came from Professor Maria Luiza Salatino, from the Biosciences Institute, who assisted in the process of extracting plant components and producing the methanol extract. Professor Maria Valéria Robles, of the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences at USP, aided in the development of topical preparations, which were tested on animals at the State University of Campinas (Unicamp). According to Walter, university help was needed to complete the project, from a technical standpoint. Awarded with a CNPq research grant for high school students, he plans to take the research further and reveals that his initial interest in medicine has been redirected into another area, chemical engineering.
Vitor Martes Sternlicht, another Dante Alighieri student but in the ninth grade, took second place in the Exact and Earth Sciences category by proposing a fusion of two methods for producing clean energy: wind and solar. The project proposes building a wind turbine with high-energy-yield photovoltaic cells installed on its blades, increasing the efficiency of the mechanism. “The project does not yet have a university partner. It’s purely conceptual. But I’m working on building a two meter prototype with 50 cm blades with solar plates,” said Victor, adding that he and his school are funding the project.
Despite Vitor’s young age, 14, he is an old hat at science fairs. At the first SEF, in 2011, he received first place in Exact Sciences with a robotic mapping project using arduino, a hardware platform used in computer manufacturing. The system, also showed at Febrace in 2012, is an autonomous robot, equipped with locator software, able to identify victims in disasters such as landslides. Thanks to this project, Vitor was invited to attend a fair of young scientists in Houston, Texas (US). “Just by talking with someone during the fair, you end up getting a suggestion you hadn’t thought of before,” says Vitor.
The influence that research in high school can have on choices at graduation is clear in the examples of many SEF finalists, such as the project Nice to Know Science, second place winner in the Applied Social Sciences and Humanities category. To investigate the interest of young people in basic scientific research, students from the Monte Mor Technical School (Etec), of the Paula Souza Center—Gabriela Nayane de Queiroz e Souza, Raquel Resende and Ingrid Bugdanovis Miranda—found that there is a huge deficit in teaching methodology, mainly due to the mistaken stereotype that considers science a subject only of interest to experienced researchers.
“Research at the high school level allows the student to replace a passive attitude with continuous self-education, making learning enjoyable, simple and productive,” explains Gabriela, 16. It was during the 2012 Febrace that the students began to plan the project, when noting the interest of other students in science and observing that beginners like them were in search of opportunities to gain experience in carrying out research in their intended professions.
Two questionnaires were used in public secondary schools in Monte Mor, a town located 122 km from the São Paulo state capital. The objective of the first was to identify teachers’ difficulties in dealing with scientific methodology. Among the problems identified, they highlighted the lack of student interest, the schools’ scarce technical and financial resources, teachers’ lack of time and the fact that methodology was not part of the teaching curriculum. The second questionnaire, given to students, assessed their level of knowledge of science and scientific research, and identified serious deficiencies in the subject. Gabriela recounts that the students interviewed showed little familiarity with scientific research, revealing a basic lack of knowledge about how to take the first steps towards undertaking a project. One of the group of young scientists emerging in Brazil, Gabriela says she will be a researcher “for the rest of my life.” “I learned to love science, regardless of the area,” she said, and she believes research is the best way to become a critical thinker.
The student Flávia Araújo de Amorim, 16, currently in her last year of high school at the Colégio Giordano Bruno, showed peers who had trouble starting a project that inspiration can often spring from their own everyday experiences. Flavia combined her affinity with research since elementary school with an interest in helping people like her paternal grandmother, who takes care of her own mother, now quite elderly, who is a victim of Alzheimer’s disease. The girl then thought: why not develop a project that will result in new thinking about the caregiver’s quality of life? Flávia used the grant she received from CNPq to map the components of social skills needed by caregivers of patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by deterioration of cognitive activity and behavioral changes, requiring special care.
The student found that in most cases, the caregiver role is performed by only one family member, making that person vulnerable to health problems and family conflicts. “The well-being of the caregiver and of the patient are correlated and, thus, the need for caregiver training, so that he or she can deal more positively with the caregiving situation,” she explains in the project. Social skills are therefore seen as important mechanisms for caregivers in health care situations. Flavia plans to continue research and study psychology at college—another example of a profession chosen due to early experiences with research.Republish